04 - 03

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 34

04 - 03

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AT LAST I UNDERSTOOD what was working its way through me: I desired, despite every apprehension, to find Titch. The need was strong in me; to know if he lived still, and to confront him. My life had been one life before he had taken me up; this he had wrenched off course into a thing of wonder and then loneliness and destitution. My current life, I realized, was constructed around an absence; for all its richness I still felt as if the floors might give way, as if its core were only a covering of leaves, and I would slip through, falling endlessly, never again to get my footing.

I could delay it no longer. I would go to Granbourne. I would seek him out there.

Would I find him in residence? I did not know. But it only made sense for him to have returned to its halls. He had griped and complained and hated it with a passion. And yet it struck me as his only true sanctuary from a rough world that misunderstood him, the seat of his wealth and his privilege, a place he would forever be drawn to as water is drawn to its source. And so I addressed a letter to him there and received, surprisingly, a response from his mother, inviting me to afternoon tea.

The reply made me uneasy. Why had not Titch himself written? Was it as Tanna had foretold? Was he dead?

Over a cold herring lunch the next afternoon I mentioned my intentions to the Goffs.

Tanna quietly set down her fork. She did not frown, but there was something of that harshness on her brow.

“But why?” she said. “Why seek him out? Where is the sense in it?”

Goff sat chewing with swift, squirrel-like bites, clearing his throat gruffly but not speaking. As usual he seemed unaware of his daughter’s annoyance.

I had grown flustered; Tanna seemed, in that moment, incapable of all understanding. “I would just like to speak with him again. To have him explain where he went.”

In truth, my reasons proved as murky to me as they did to her. I suppose I wanted an apology, some expression of his remorse. Or at the very least, an explanation. I wanted him to tell me why he had plucked me from my life of toil in the first place, if anything had existed for him beyond the possibilities of my being useful to his cause. I wanted to know why my loyalty had moved him so little that he’d abruptly abandoned me. Perhaps his words would never be enough, in the end. Perhaps it was stupid to seek any peace from him. But I wanted very much to hear him speak my name, and to read in his face the guilt, the shame. And if there was no guilt or shame, I wanted to see that too.

“What good will it do, seeing him?” said Tanna. “What will it resolve?”

I made no answer.

“Does it not seem more likely that Willard lied to you? That Christopher Wilde is dead?”

“It does. But that still does not mean it is impossible.”

“Who?” said Goff suddenly, abruptly. He gave a sharp cough. “Oh, yes, I remember.”

“And in any event, why should Wilde go to Granbourne?” said Tanna. “Why would he retreat there? He despised the place. You said it yourself.”

“It was his home. He hated it, but he was tied to it in a way I think he himself little understood. I know him. If he is not there currently, he will have recently passed through it.”

“If he is still alive.”

“If he is alive, yes.”

Tanna drew a breath, as though to calm herself. “The truth of the matter is that Wilde did nothing to further your cause that did not further his own. You were a convenience for him.”

I rubbed at my face in frustration.

Her cheeks reddened. “Well, you cannot go Tuesday next. We promised Father we’d source the Portland cement for the artificial rocks.” She glanced over at Goff, who was wholly absorbed in his meal. “Father?”

“What’s that?” said Goff.

“Surely it can wait a day, no?” I turned to Goff. “Or perhaps you might go yourself, sir?”

“We’ve also to drop the plans for the tanks at Wolcott and Sons,” said Tanna. “He will need us to explain them.”

After months of searching we had finally found engineers competent enough to build my complex designs.

“Mister Wolcott likes and respects you,” I said testily. “He will not mistreat you if you go alone.”

She appeared wounded by the suggestion. “Finding Christopher Wilde is important to you. Surely I should be at your side.”

Something twisted in me. I had been anxious about going alone, and yet I did not wish to be accompanied by her criticism, by her vocal insistence that my search was foolish and futile. My nerves, I was surprised to learn, were raw already.

“I will bite my tongue in silence,” said she. “I promise.”

“Bite your tongue in silence,” Goff grumbled. “It will be a bloody stump before you’re halfway down the lane.”

She smiled nervously across at me, and I lowered my eyes.

— WE WERE DAYS in preparation. The visit to Wolcott and Sons was delayed until our return, and Goff was left unhappily with the task of sourcing eelgrass. And then we set out, the cool morning still damp with the evening rains.

We spoke little on the journey. I sensed Tanna’s confusion, her lack of understanding that we should be going at all. I was tired, and did not wish to defend myself. We leaned softly against each other, silent, watching the city thin out and fall away.

Finally we reached the edge of the great estate. Driving up the gravel path, through the silver maples, we glimpsed buildings so rotted it was impossible they should be standing. I could see a gathering of thatch-roofed cottages, and a crumbling gardener’s shack seemingly held together by vines grown through the stone. Against a rain-soaked carriage house someone had lined up broken axles, black as burnt bones.

I felt myself nearing the centre of a great darkness, a world from which my childhood, Faith—the endless suffering and labour there—was but a single spoke on a vast wheel. Here was the source, the beginning and the end of a power that asserted itself over life, death, the very birth of children. We cantered through a grove of low-hanging branches. I listened to the horse’s shoes biting into the gravel, mud grinding under the carriage wheels. The air tasted of metal, and I remembered suddenly the Far North, the ferocity of the cold.

A silver band in the distance began to widen, to glisten. An artificial pond. Crystalline pins winked across its pale blue surface, so that it seemed to have some alarming sentience, like the eye of a blind man.

I remembered then something Titch had once said, during one of his rare quiet tirades against his mother—that she had no tolerance for anything not English. That, despite her having lived an unconventional life with Mister Wilde, and been herself an unconventional young woman, her sense of the world was old and rigid and unforgiving.

Would I actually find him here, behind these crumbling, moss-strewn walls? The grounds had a feeling of plenitude, of growth and richness, but there was also a sense of vacancy, as though the place had been abandoned not only by its people but by progress itself. One felt great age, and a silence like a held pause; it was as though everything that could happen here had already occurred, as though you were wading into an aftermath.

I sighed and brought my head to rest on Tanna’s shoulder, feeling the pulse of the wheels clattering on the gravel under us. For nights I had thought of what I might say to Titch; staring now upon the grey fields, my mind grew empty, hazy. Tanna gently took my hand, but there was a hardness in her eyes as she gazed upon the acres of dead grass.

We slipped from under a canopy of bare branches, and it was then I glimpsed it: the grand, forbidding, illustrious old house, the great manor of Granbourne. I saw its several unlit wings, I saw the ancient scars of weather and wars upon its facade. It was this from which the Wilde men had fled. The pillars and pediments were crumbling, the pavilion choked with moss. I could smell, on the surrounding air, the bitter, offal-like stench of dead garden beds.

The facade was black with cold ivy. The stonework was incut with unwashed, green-tinted, leaded windows. As our carriage approached, the landscape rose up watery and ethereal in them.

All at once the doors were opened and an old manservant stepped out onto the high landing. I could not see his face, but he clasped his hands behind him and became absolutely still. He was of average stature, slightly corpulent, but the stillness of his bearing, as if he were sucking all the surrounding silence into himself, gave him a natural authority. He looked very much as I imagined a parent might look to an infant from the depths of his crib.

We were shown into the high-ceilinged reception hall, where Tanna stood rubbing her hands together, as though she could not get warm, as though the weather had followed us inside. The air smelled of wet tea leaves and dust, of burnt wood. I peered at a large, unlit stone hearth, the intricate scrollwork overhanging it. No fire had been lit.

— THE MANSERVANT LED US through darkened corridors, then out onto a great terrace of weathered chairs and large, cracked stone pots grey with long-dead roses. I looked to the sky; the birds appeared like shreds of cloth, distant, faint. The air felt very cold, the sky strewn with clouds so thin in the atmosphere they could barely be seen. And yet they seemed to block out all warmth; I could feel Tanna shivering beside me, and I rubbed at her back, its fine, hard bones. Yet for all this cold, the air still felt much warmer than inside the house, as if the years of Hampshire winters had accumulated in the old stone walls.

The servant stood unspeaking near the doorway, waiting.

Tanna hesitated; we looked nervously at one another. Finally she leaned forward and said, “Is Mister Wilde currently in residence?”

The servant appeared at first not to hear her. Then, very slowly, he gave a grave shake of the head. The vagueness of her question made his answer unclear—which Mister Wilde was from home?—but it was obvious that even to shake his head caused this man great strain, and that we should tax him no further. How very old he was. He had likely been a fixture in this house for decades—indeed, the manor might have been built around him. He had a wrecked, creviced face, and the stiffness of his carriage appeared to pain him. He would, I thought, have been witness to Titch’s earliest days here, and I longed to ask him about them.

There came a rustling from inside the house, and a woman appeared from the darkness, magisterially tall in her damp riding dress, her hem muddy. She paused at the threshold, blinking at us. Her stature was extravagant—nearly Titch’s height—with just the faintest curve in her upper spine, a soft hump between her shoulder blades. Her face looked waxen but for a stain-like flush across her broad nose. She clasped her hands before her, the forefingers adorned with heavy, identical jade rings; and I remembered Titch’s hands, the emerald rings poised just above his knuckles.

She stared a long while. “Mister Black?” she said finally, and it was less a welcome than a statement of disappointment, as though she had expected another man. And yet in my letter I had explained all to her: that I had once been a slave on her plantation, had been stolen away by her youngest son and journeyed north with him. I had even warned her of my disfigurement, in case it should startle her.

Sparing Tanna no glance, Mrs. Wilde said, with great forbearance, “You are very welcome.”

“Mrs. Wilde,” said I with a bow. “What a pleasure to make your acquaintance, finally. I have heard much about you.”

She looked me slowly over, her eyes resting on my burns. She said nothing.

I continued to smile, but it was as though the weather had entered my bones.

With no word more she crossed the wind-pitted terrace, its leaves skittering across the tiles, and stationed herself on a bench at a vast stone table. She said nothing, made no gesture that we should join her, merely sat looking over the far-ranging greyness of all she owned. Tanna gave me an irritable look, but together we went to her, brushing at the dirt on the cold bench across from her to sit.

With her light-brown eyes Mrs. Wilde studied us. There was a faint wheezing in her chest from the morning’s ride, but even this seemed less a weakness than some mark of privilege.

“My man here cautions me against riding,” said she, gesturing vaguely at the manservant still at the door. “Idleness is the worse danger at my age, as far as I am concerned. What is a broken bone?”

“Exercise is beneficial, at any age,” offered Tanna.

Mrs. Wilde frowned faintly and did not look at her. “The weather has been most uncooperative of late.”

The manservant stepped forward and, taking a white woollen shawl from a far-off chair, settled it across Mrs. Wilde’s shoulders.

“I do hope you managed to have something to eat before travelling all this way,” said she, and I thought this surprising, given her invitation to tea. “I would have offered a lunch, but I did not know if you enjoyed English food.” Her eyes roamed vaguely about the terrace as if determined not to rest on anything. “I certainly know that when I am abroad I suffer much.”

“I am English,” Tanna said.

For the first time Mrs. Wilde allowed her eyes to settle on Tanna. She gave a faint smile.

“My father is Geoffrey Michael Goff, the marine zoologist.”

She studied Tanna, her smile still vague. “My husband was somewhat interested in all that. I care nothing for the subjects.”

“Mister Goff has made major achievements in the field,” I said, though I felt a twinge as I spoke. “He is a fellow of the Royal Society, as I believe your late husband was?”

Mrs. Wilde clasped her jewelled hands upon the table, her expression unchanged.

“We have come in search of your son, Christopher Wilde,” said Tanna, having exhausted her pleasantries. “Is he here?”

Something entered Mrs. Wilde’s face then, some indefinable hardness, and I could not say whether we were its source, or Titch. “I have not seen my son these three years.”

Three years. Three. Willard had not lied: Titch had survived. He had walked through a pane of snow into an open, free life. I sat numbly, absorbing the news. It still did not strike me as true.

“How long did he stay?” Tanna asked. “Where did he go?”

Mrs. Wilde let her eyes drift over my face. I seemed, despite her better impulses, to compel her. “We no longer have the plantation. It is no longer in the family. It has been sold.”

We sat some moments in silence as this new detail sunk in.

“And what happened to the slaves there?” said I, thinking painfully of Big Kit, of Gaius. “Surely they were not sold off with the property?”

Mrs. Wilde frowned. “Sold? But they were no longer slaves to sell. They had not been slaves many a year. They were apprentices, workers. Paid to do some grounds-work. Paid handsomely, I might add. They were even given lodgings for free. But it was never enough for them.”

I could feel Tanna stiffen at this, but she made no remark.

“What happened to them?” I said again.

Mrs. Wilde sat back and breathed lightly out, her eyes roaming. “They were there of their own volition—they left of their own volition too, I imagine. Went on to other work, elsewhere.”

“Is your son here in England?” said Tanna. I could see she was growing impatient.

Mrs. Wilde paused. She pressed the palms of her hands deliberately together, and turned her eyes on me. “You were with my husband when he died, yes?”

I paused. “I was.”

She moistened her wrinkled lips, hesitating, and in that moment I understood why I had been invited here. It was nothing to do with Titch; as she’d said, she had not seen him in years. She wanted to know all about her husband’s death—his last hours on the cold, lustrous plains of ice, among races of men unimaginable to her and therefore inhuman. She wanted to ask the question that had unsettled her these long years. She wanted to know, I believe, about Peter House.

But the longer she did not ask it, the more she became unable to. We sat in the long silence of her indecision, the leaves rattling across the terrace, the patter of rain starting in the distant trees. I was aware of the manservant slowly nearing her chair, watching her every gesture for signs he should intervene.

“Your son Christopher is most definitely still alive?” asked Tanna.

Mrs. Wilde paused, her smile full of strained patience. “Last I saw him, he was. But as I say, it has been years. No one, however, has written me to tell me otherwise.” She cleared her throat. “I shall certainly let him know you are looking for him, if I do hear from him.” She turned to me, expressionless. “In the meantime, perhaps you might try him at Grosvenor.” She gave a raise of the eyebrow, as if feigning innocence. “At his cousin Philip’s house. Philip’s mother lives there still. Alone.”

I understood then that she knew it all—my witness to Philip’s death, my possible hand in it. I said nothing, felt Tanna grip my fist under the stone table.

“And do you mean to stay long in England?” Mrs. Wilde rose slowly from the bench. The manservant slid her falling shawl back onto her shoulders.

I glanced at Tanna. “Forever, perhaps. Certainly a good long while. Miss Goff and myself are helping her father with the new exhibition going into Regent’s Park. Perhaps you have heard of it—Ocean House? It is a display of living aquatic organisms.”

Mrs. Wilde gave her faint smile. “Well, I do hope you will get to see some of the city while you are here, Mister Black. This is your first excursion in London?”

“It is.”

“Regent’s Park,” she said, frowning. “The Zoo is there, is it not? I daresay you should feel quite at home.” Again, she smiled. “In London, that is.”

— WE HAD PASSED BACK through the house and were descending the grand staircase to our carriage when the manservant came out to us.

He stood against the wind as though it would fold him in half, clutching at the stone banister. We glanced up in alarm, and watched him take the stairs deliberately and one at a time, like a child learning to walk.

“You will catch cold, sir,” I said with concern.

He pulled his coat about him and placed a steadying hand on the banister. “Christopher was here some two years ago, or less.”

I was surprised, and showed it.

“He left quite upset,” the manservant continued. “But then it was always so, between Mrs. Wilde and her sons. I do not know what troubled him. But I understand he meant to sail out of Liverpool on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society. What for, I do not know. But he was always at their offices, always at their behest, desiring to aid them any way he could. He had placed the plantation’s papers there, after poor Erasmus’s death. And so he went daily there to help with the sorting of them.” He glanced over his shoulder, but not nervously. “I am not certain if he actually managed to sail out—I do know he had some apprehension of doing so. But he did not return to Granbourne, and we heard no more of him. You might do well, I think, to inquire at the Society as to his whereabouts—they must certainly have some information.”

“Oh, bless you,” breathed Tanna. “Where would we find their offices?”

As he explained the location to Tanna, I thought of Titch having the wherewithal to place Faith’s papers securely in London, and was somewhat disturbed. After hearing Willard’s story of him mumbling in the street, a part of me had believed him half-mad.

“You have been most helpful,” said I.

And he smiled, a down-turned, crooked smile that showed his surprisingly strong white teeth.

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